By Budd Bailey
Tom Petty was right. The waiting really is the hardest part.
Canisius College’s men’s basketball team dropped a 65-54 decision to Niagara, its biggest rival, at the Koessler Center on Saturday afternoon. What’s more, the game wasn’t that close.
Golden Griffins coach Reggie Witherspoon is never in a good mood after his team loses, a trait that runs through the coaching fraternity. Sometimes people can guess as to how low his Witherspoon’s mood is by how long it takes for him to meet with the media.
On Saturday, the game ended around 2:45 or so. Witherspoon finally turned up for the postgame interviews close to 4 o’clock. Once the session started, he seemed to hit a low in level of spirit. That dates all the way back the beginning of his time at Canisius, which was in 2016 when he replaced Jim Baron. It would take a mind-reader to know Reggie’s exact thoughts, and maybe that’s best for all.
This loss was the latest in a series of disappointing outcomes for the Griffins, who fell to 8-19 overall, 4-12 Metro Atlantic. Canisius has lost three in a row and seven of its last eight. It hasn’t won a road game all season long. The team won 39 games in its first two years under Witherspoon, but it hasn’t had a winning record in a full season since then. (Canisius did go 7-6 last season in a year shortened by the pandemic.)
The Griffins generally have been competitive during the 2022 portion of the current season. They are 4-10 in that span, but all of the losses before Saturday’s contest came by 10 points or fewer. That lack of positive reinforcement for some hard but fruitless work may have taken its toll.
“It can wear you down, but I don’t know if it was the case today,” Witherspoon said.
Canisius started well enough, jumping out to a 10-7 lead in the first six minutes. Five different players scored for the Golden Griffins in that span. But then Niagara went to work. The Purple Eagles went on an 11-0 run to take the lead for good. Canisius cut the margin to 18-14, and Niagara followed with another 13-2 burst.
“We emphasized defense, which makes it easier for our offense to play,” Niagara’s Sam Iorio said. “We came out with energy and play hard, and it’s really good for us.”
“They just played harder than us,” Canisius’ Malek Green said. “There were a lot of things that hurt us.”
The Eagles left the court at the half with a 33-21 lead. The teams more or less traded baskets for the first 10 minutes of the second half. Then six straight Niagara points put it up, 52-33, with 8:41 left, and the outcome seemed assured. Canisius answered with six points in a row, but never came close to cutting the margin into single digits. The team more often than not looked lifeless.
The result was a welcome sight for Niagara, which had followed an emotional win over Iona with a blowout defeat at the hands of Fairfield and another loss at Marist. The team was led in scoring by Iorio (17 points) and Marcus Hammond (13), who seemed to have an answer whenever Canisius even threatened to make a run.
“I loved the energy and the effort,” Purple Eagles coach Greg Paulus said. “I thought we were a really connected group that was really unselfish. We talked about taking the extra pass and trying to take what they gave us. They have such great length and size defensively, they can do a number of things to take you out of what you want to do. For us we just wanted to share the basketball.”
Iorio’s play has improved greatly as the season has gone on, as the graduate student grown into a dependable offensive option. Hammond has been the team’s offensive leader throughout the season. The senior knows that his time as a Purple Eagle is running out, and he’s trying to make each moment count.
“Yeah, every game is precious to me, but I want to finish up strong,” he said.
Jordan Henderson had 13 points for Canisius, while Green scored 12. The team statistics might have been more relevant on this day. The Golden Griffins were outscored, 42-20, in the paint, and by 18-3 on fast breaks. In other words, Niagara scored most of the game’s easy baskets – which can be crushing to an opponent’s spirit.
“It looked like it was discouraging,” Witherspoon said. “It looked like something discouraged us.”
Canisius has until Friday to figure out what has gone wrong, and what it should do to fix it. The Golden Griffins play at Iona then.
But the long-term situation is even more difficult to forecast. Witherspoon signed a five-year contract at Canisius when he replaced Jim Baron in 2016. There’s no word on what the current contract status is for the veteran coach who turns 61 on Monday. No one would argue that Witherspoon isn’t a class act or isn’t a good coach in the right circumstances. He had some good teams earlier in his career – especially at UB (four 20-win seasons).
Still, the Canisius athletic department can’t be happy about the current situation. Last in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Department is not a good look, and having about 1,200 turn out for a home game with an arch-rival must hurt. But it’s fair to ask if anyone could win in the team’s overall situation, and if a coaching change – which might include eating a salary for a while – would make a difference.
We’ll all just have to wait until at least March and see. And that’s never easy for anyone.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)